Imagine if the Israeli Prime Minister hired a former PLO fighter as his personal pilot. Or if the president of the United States allowed a Russian to be his personal chauffeur at the height of the Cold War. Sounds surreal? Yet that is precisely what happened in Nigeria several decades ago when then head of state General Gowon hired an Igbo air force officer who formerly fought for Biafra as one of his presidential pilots.
Nigerians are an opinionated and self-critical bunch. Dinner and beer parlour conversations among Nigerians almost inevitably turn to the country’s underwhelming accomplishments and disastrous mismanagement. Self-flagellation is a national obsession. Despite our penchant for voicing our opinion when it comes to national failures, we suddenly become reticent when it comes to recognizing our national accomplishments. This is puzzling as one of our most impressive accomplishments is a reconciliation that is unprecedented in modern history.
THE BROTHERS’ WAR
Sunday January 15, 2017 marks the 47th anniversary of the end of the Nigerian civil war. On that day in Dodan Barracks, a brutal 920-day civil war ended as former colleagues and combatants who had engaged each other in bitter warfare for over two and a half years embraced each other with unprecedented speech and warmth. They ended a war wracked by famine, starving children, one million corpses, and violence and suffering of such an intensely grotesque magnitude that the words “pogrom” and “Kwashiorkor” were introduced into the standard Nigerian vocabulary.
NO NUREMBERG TRIALS, NO MEDALS
When the war ended, the Igbos grimly expected that their defeat would be followed by their wholesale massacre. However the leader of the victorious army refused to proclaim victory as there is no “victor” in a conflict between brothers. He declared a general amnesty for all those who fought against him, invited members of the defeated side to join his administration, refused to conduct trials of, or execute the defeated, and refused to award medals to his own soldiers who had fought the war for years. He even allowed some members of the enemy’s army to join his own army. For their part, Igbos quietly accepted their new fate in a united Nigeria, went back to their farms and businesses, and rebuilt their destroyed homes without any thoughts of sabotage or guerilla warfare to continue their struggle. All this happened without a United Nations resolution or peacekeeping force, international peace plans and conferences, or the protracted years long negotiations that it normally takes to resolve modern conflicts. Nigerians decided for themselves that they had seen enough bloodshed and that they wanted a war free future for their children.
The war also ironically dissolved some of the negative stereotypes the combatants held about each other, and enhanced their mutual respect for each other. Igbos won admiration from the federal side for the tenacity, iron will, and incredible improvisation with which they fought the war. The federal side won the Igbos’ respect for their magnanimity in victory. Although pockets of bitterness remain (particularly over the emotional issue of properties abandoned by Igbos who fled for their safety, but which were illegally appropriated by other communities), it is undoubted that Nigeria’s remarkable reconciliation is rivaled in the modern era only by black South Africans’ forgiveness of their former oppressors.
AN ACHIEVEMENT MATCHED BY FEW OTHERS
Almost 50 years after United Nations resolutions called for them to cease hostilities, the Israelis and Arabs are still at each other’s throats. Over 22 years after the Rwandan civil war, the government is still carrying out war crimes trials. However, a remarkably sober pragmatism rose from the blood, fire and ashes of the Nigerian civil war. It taught the combatants an unforgettable lesson in the evils of ethnic rivalry. The bitter memory of the war means that Nigeria stumbles through and survives the sorts of crises that cause war and disintegration in other countries: such as June 12, Sharia, military coups, ethnic violence, and resource control.
When an election was annulled in Algeria in 1991, it plunged Algeria into a decade long civil war in which up to 200,000 people died and terrorism linked to the event was exported to France. When an election was annulled in Nigeria two years later, the winner of the election said he abhorred violence and urged the public to protest peacefully. A multi-ethnic federation in Yugoslavia was destroyed amidst ethnic cleansing and a brutal civil war in which NATO had to intervene with air strikes in order to convince the combatants to stop killing each other. A multi-ethnic federation in Nigeria is managed through a complex system of constitutional checks and balances, and a legally binding concept known as “federal character” which means that every single one of the 36 states in the federation has a minister in the government. The four most powerful people in the country are all from different ethnic groups, and there is an unwritten rule meaning that the President and Vice-President can never be from the same part of the country.
The former combatants now live, work, and intermarry with each other as if the war never happened. Yet the civil war literature rarely discusses this most remarkable and impressive aspect of the war: the humanity with which Nigerians and Biafrans forgave each other, laid down their arms and got on with their lives. Why was this remarkable reconciliation possible?
GENERAL GOWON: THE HEALER OF NIGERIAN WOUNDS
This reconciliation was possible due largely to one pivotal figure: the then Nigerian head of state Yakubu “Jack” Gowon. It was he who insisted that Igbos should be treated as prodigal sons, rather than defeated foes. He did so against the urgings of his own colleagues who wanted brutal punishment to be meted out to Igbos. Even as the war raged, Gowon repeatedly declared that “We do not take the Ibos as our enemies; they are our brothers.”
When he became head of state after the two bloody military coups of 1966, he initially seemed totally unsuitable for the job of ruling one of the most unruly populations on Earth. He did not have the oratorical gifts of Ojukwu, the erudition of Awolowo, the stature of the Sardauna, or the imposing physicality of Aguiyi-Ironsi. Yet he remained the only officer acceptable to the majority of the population and army. Why?
“JACK THE BOY SCOUT”
Gowon was a humble, soft-spoken infantry soldier who trained at the world’s most elite military academy, yet had an oxymoronic distaste for unnecessary bloodshed. It was Gowon who insisted that Igbos should be treated as prodigal sons, rather than defeated foes. It was as if his background and origin were deliberately woven from Nigeria’s intricate ethnic matrix to ensure balance between the north and south. Gowon was that rarest of Nigerians: acceptable to the north and south. Gowon was from the north, yet practised the religion of the south. He was a Nigerian PR man’s dream. His surname was even used as an acronym calling for Nigerian unity: “Go On With One Nigeria”. The bachelor son of a Methodist minister, he did not drink, smoke or curse. He seemed so impossibly innocent and naïve that some foreign correspondents nicknamed him “Jack the Boy Scout”. The name was not fanciful. On one occasion he apologised to reporters for using the word “hell”.
Former Biafran officer Ben Gbulie admitted that Gowon’s forgiveness would probably not have been reciprocated had Biafra won the war. Gbulie said “Probably if we had won the war, we would have shot him.” Scant attention has been paid to why Gowon chose this remarkable path of reconciliation. Many factors were at play. As a minister’s son, he was a genuine Christian, and his humane approach to Igbos may also have been borne of the fact that at the time the crisis erupted, Gowon had an Igbo girlfriend named Edith Ike, whom he expected to marry (he eventually married a nurse named Victoria Zakari).
However, Gowon was also pragmatic enough to realise that clemency was crucial to Igbo acceptance of reintegration. Had he sought to punish Igbos, there would have been an Igbo led armed insurrection in Nigeria till today. Gowon’s mistake was that at the war’s end, he did not realise that his job was done. Had he stepped down at the end of the war, he would have maintained his prestige as Nigeria’s Lincoln.
To understand the magnitude of what Nigeria achieved by fighting such a brutal war, then making such a remarkably rapid peace, I will turn to the words of a neutral foreign observer of the conflict. John de St Jorre’s The Brothers War is one of the most balanced accounts of the war. Commenting on the reconciliation that followed the war, St Jorre observed that:
“when history takes a longer view of Nigeria’s war it will be shown that while the black man has little to teach us about making war he has a real contribution to offer in making peace.”
*The official members of the Biafran and federal delegations who attended the formal war ending ceremony at Dodan Barracks on January 15, 1970 were:
Biafran Delegation –
- Major-General Phillip Effiong – Officer Administering the Republic of Biafra
- Sir Louis Mbanefo – Chief Justice of Biafra
- Matthew Mbu – Biafran Foreign Minister
- Brigadier Patrick Amadi – Biafran Army
- Colonel Patrick Anwunah – Chief of Logistics and Principal Staff Officer to Ojukwu
- Colonel David Ogunewe – Military Adviser to Ojukwu
- Patrick Okeke – Inspector-General of Biafran Police
Federal Military Government Delegation:
- Major-General Yakubu Gowon – Nigerian Head of State
- Obafemi Awolowo – Deputy Chairman, Supreme Military Council
- Brigadier Emmanuel Ekpo – Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters
- Brigadier Hassan Katsina – Chief of Staff, Nigerian Army
- Brigadier Emmanuel Ikwue – Chief of Air Staff
- Rear-Admiral Joseph Wey – Chief of Naval Staff
- Dr Taslim Elias – Attorney-General
- H.E.A. Ejueyitchie – Secretary to the Federal Military Government
- Anthony Enahoro – Commissioner for Information
- The Military Governors of the 12 states: , Ukpabi Asika, Audu Bako, David Bamigboye, Alfred Diete-Spiff, Jacob Esuene, Usman Faruk, Joseph Gomwalk, Mobolaji Johnson, Abba Kyari, Samuel Ogbemudia, Oluwole Rotimi, Musa Usman.
“It was the first time I saw my dad scared”
Video showing the scenes following the end of the civil war between Biafra and Nigeria: between the respective representatives of the two armies: Colonels Obasanjo and Effiong.
This past weekend was the anniversary of the declaration of the republic of Biafra in May 1967. The surviving actors from the war spoke about the war in this excellent video series:
Boko Haram has been the beneficiary of some training and equipment from ISIL,” Barlow continued. “Prisoners have told us that Boko Haram is and has been supplied and supported by ‘Europeans’ who have arrived in their safe areas by helicopter.”
Great five part series on the recent gains made by the Nigerian army against Boko Haram. Including the role of South African private military companies, Nigerian special forces, and new weaponry received by the army.
There are two anniversaries today: (1) the anniversary of Nigeria’s first military coup 49 years ago on January 15, 1966; and (2) the anniversary of the end of the Nigerian civil war 45 years ago on January 15, 1970.
“The Dawn of National Reconciliation” – Gowon’s Civil War Victory Message to the Nation, 15 January 1970
Citizens of Nigeria,
It is with a heart full of gratitude to God that I announce to you that today marks the formal end of the civil war. This afternoon at Dodan Barracks, Lt. Col. Phillip Effiong, Lt. Col. David Ogunewe, Lt. Col. Patrick Anwunah, Lt. Col. Patrick Amadi and Commissioner of Police, Chief Patrick Okeke formally proclaimed the end of the attempt at secession and accepted the authority of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. They also formally accepted the present political and administrative structure of the country. This ends thirty months of a grim struggle. Thirty months of sacrifice and national agony.
Exactly four years ago on January 15, 1966, a group of young army officers overthrew the Government of the country with violence. The country hoped, however, that the military regime which followed would quickly restore discipline and confidence in the army and introduce a just, honest, patriotic and progressive government. The country was disappointed in those hopes. There were further tragic incidents in the army leading to the death of many officers and men in July 1966.
I then assumed the leadership of the Federal Military Government. I gave a solemn pledge to work to reduce tension in the army and the country, to restore the Federal Constitution and to prepare the country for an orderly return to civilian rule as early as possible. Despite my efforts and to co-operation of all other members of the Supreme Military Council, the former Lt. Col. Ojukwu pushed us from one crisis to another. This intransigent defiance of Federal Government authority heightened tensions and led to the much regretted riots in September/October 1966. He subsequently exploited the situation to plunge the former Eastern Region into secession and the nation into a tragic war.
The world knows how hard we strove to avoid the civil war. Our objectives in fighting the war to crush Ojukwu’s rebellion were always clear. We desired to preserve the territorial integrity and unity of Nigeria. For as one country we would be able to maintain lasting peace amongst our various communities; achieve rapid economic development to improve the lot of our people; guarantee a dignified future and respect in the world for our prosperity and contribute to African unity and modernization. On the other hand, the small successor states in a disintegrated Nigeria would be victims of perpetual war and misery and neo-colonialism. Our duty was clear. And we are, today, vindicated.
The so-called “Rising Sun of Biafra” is set for ever. It will be a great disservice for anyone to continue to use the word Biafra to refer to any part of the East Central State of Nigeria. The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again, we have an opportunity to build a new nation.
My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen. To the heroes, who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation great in justice, fair play, and industry. They will be mourned for ever by a grateful nation. There are also the innocent men, women, and children who perished, not in battle but as a result of the conflict. We also honour their memory. We honour the fallen of both sides of this tragic fratricidal conflict. Let it be our resolution that all those dead shall have not died in vain. Let the greater nation we shall build be their proud monument forever.
Now, my dear countrymen, we must recommence at once in greater earnest, the task of healing the nation’s wounds. We have at various times repeated our desire for reconciliation in full equality, once the secessionist regime abandoned secession. I solemnly repeat our guarantees of a general amnesty for those misled into rebellion. We guarantee the security of life and property of all citizens in every part of Nigeria and equality in political rights. We also guarantee the right of every Nigerian to reside and work wherever he chooses in the Federation, as equal citizens of one united country. It is only right that we should all henceforth respect each other. We should all exercise civic restraint and use our freedom, taking into full account the legitimate right and needs of the other man. There is no question of second class citizenship in Nigeria.
On our side, we fought the war with great caution, not in anger or hatred, but always in the hope that common sense would prevail. Many times we sought a negotiated settlement, not out of weakness, but in order to minimize the problems of reintegration, reconciliation, and reconstruction. We knew that however the war ended, in the battlefield, or in the conference room, our brothers fighting under other colours must rejoin us and that we must together rebuild the nation anew.
Those now freed from the terror and misery of the secessionist enclave are therefore doubly welcome. The nation is relieved. All energies will now be bent to the task of reintegration and reconciliation. They will find, contrary to the civil [thus in press release; but probably ‘evil’?] propaganda with which they were fed, that thousands and thousands of Ibos have lived and worked in peace with other ethnic groups in Lagos and elsewhere in the Federation throughout the dark days of the civil war. There is, therefore, no cause for humiliation on the part of any group of the people of this country. The task of reconciliation is truly begun.
The nation will be proud of the fact that the ceremony today at Dodan Barracks of reunion under the banner of the Federal Republic of Nigeria was arranged and conducted by Nigerians amongst ourselves alone. No foreign good offices was involved. That is what we always prayed for. We always prayed that we should resolve our problems ourselves, free from foreign mentors and go-betweens however well intentioned. Thus, our nation is come of age. And the meaning of today’s event must be enshrined in the nation’s memory for ever.
There is an urgent task to be done. The Federal Government has mounted a massive relief operation to alleviate the suffering of the people in the newly liberated areas. I have as announced, assigned special responsibility for this to a member of the Federal Executive Council. We are mobilizing adequate resources from the Federal Government to provide food, shelter, and medicines for the affected population. Rehabilitation and reconstruction will follow simultaneously to restore electricity, transport and communications. We must, as a matter of urgency, resettle firms and reopen factories to ensure that normal economic life is resumed by everyone as soon as possible. Special attention will be given to the rehabilitation of women and children in particular, so long denied the comfort of homes, the blessing of education and the assurance of a future by Ojukwu’s wicked tyranny and falsehood. We must restore at once to them hope and purpose in life.
Federal troops have a special charge to give emergency relief to the people in the areas they have liberated before civilian help can come. They must continue and intensify their splendid work in this regard. The state administrations are giving emergency relief the first priority. The Rehabilitation Commissions and the Voluntary Agencies are extending their efforts. The appropriate agencies of Federal Government will soon make further announcements about additional relief measures.
My Government has directed that former civil servants and public corporation officials should be promptly reinstated as they come out of hiding. Detailed arrangements for this exercise have been published. Plans for the rehabilitation of self-employed people will also be announced shortly. The problem of emergency relief is a challenge for the whole nation. We must prove ourselves equal to the task. Our resources, which have enabled us to prosecute the war successfully and without obligations to anyone, are considerable. I appeal to the nation for volunteers to help in the emergency relief operations in the newly liberated areas. Doctors, nurses, engineers, technicians, builders, plumbers, mechanics, and administrators – all skilled hands willing to help are urgently required. The detailed arrangements for recruitment will soon be announced. I am sure that there will be a prompt and good response to this call.
You will have heard that my Government may seek the assistance of friendly foreign governments and bodies, especially in the provision of equipment to supplement our national effort. There are, however, a number of foreign governments and organizations whose so-called assistance will not be welcome. These are the governments and organizations which sustained the rebellion. They are thus guilty of the blood of thousands who perished because of prolongation of the futile rebel assistance. They did not act out of love for humanity. Their purpose was to disintegrate Nigeria and Africa and impose their will on us. They may still harbour their evil intentions. We shall therefore not allow them to divide and estrange us again from one another with their dubious and insulting gifts and their false humanitarianism.
Regarding the future, we shall maintain our purpose to work for stability with the existing political structure of a minimum of twelve states. The collision of three giant regions with pretentions to sovereignty created distrust and fear and to the tragic conflict now ending. The multi-state structure will therefore be retained with the minimum of the present twelve states. Immediate post-war planning and reconstruction will continue on this basis. Any new constitution will be the result of discussion by the representatives of all the people of Nigeria.
I am happy that despite the war, Nigeria has maintained a strong and expanding economy. Plans are also far advance for faster economic modernization. Our enormous material resources and our large dynamic population will make this possible. We are pledge to ensure rapid development for the benefit of the Nigerian people themselves. It will be much easier to achieve reconciliation and reintegration in increasing prosperity.
Fellow countrymen, the civil war is truly over. We thank God. But the state of national emergency and emergency regulations remain. Discipline and sacrifice are essential if we are to achieve our goals in the immediate post-war period and lay sound foundations for the future. I demand of you patience, resolution, and continued dedication. I demand of the workers and employers continued restraint in industrial relations in keeping with the recent decree. A decree on price control will soon be promulgated. We shall soon review wages and salaries to improve the lot of the ordinary man. The immediate economic problems are challenging and we must behave accordingly.
On this occasion, I wish to place on record the nation’s gratitude to the Organization of African Unity for its splendid diplomatic and moral support for the Federal cause. I thank particularly the Chairman of the Consultative Committee on Nigeria, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I and the other members of the committee. I also thank the President of the OAU General Assembly, Presidents Mobutu, Boumedienne, and Ahidjo, who presided over OAU summit discussions of the Nigerian crisis. The enemies of Africa were restrained by the demonstration of such solid support. I thank the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, for his understanding attitude towards our country’s crisis and the specialized agencies for their assistance. I also thank the friendly governments who gave us moral and material support in the darkest hour of our need. The nation will remember them as true friends. It is the desire of my Government that our relations with them should grow stronger.
Consistent with our basic policy, we shall maintain correct relations with all foreign governments notwithstanding the anxieties they may have caused us. As we emerge from our greatest trial we shall endeavour to work for peace in the world and for a better economic deal for the less developed countries of the world.
The Armed Forces deserve the greatest praise for their valour in battle, their loyalty and dedication and for their resourcefulness in overcoming the formidable obstacles placed in our way. I praise them for observing strictly the code of conduct issued to them at the beginning of the operations. It is necessary now more than ever when the rebellion is ended for them to maintain the high standard they have attained. The letter and spirit of the code must be obeyed. Their first duty is to protect the lives and property of all surrendering troops and civilians and to give them humane treatment. Stern disciplinary measures will be taken against any who violate the code. I know, however, that I can continue to count on your loyalty and discipline.
I also praise the civilian population everywhere in the country for their patience, sacrifice, loyalty, and steadfast support for the fighting troops and for One Nigeria. We must all be justly proud. All Nigerians share the victory of today. The victory for national unity, victory for hopes of Africans and black people everywhere. We must thank God for his mercies. We mourn the dead heroes. We thank God for sparing us to see his glorious dawn of national reconciliation. We have ordered that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday be national days of prayer. We must his guidance to do our duty to contribute our quota to the building of a great nation, founded on the concerted efforts of all its people and on justice and equality. A nation never to return to the fractious, sterile and selfish debates that led to the tragic conflict just ending. We have overcome a lot over the past four years. I have therefore every confidence that ours will become a great nation. So help us God.
Long Live the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Article on the BBC about how the state of emergency in Nigeria has led to a TRIPLING of civilian deaths by Boko Haram attacks rather than reducing those attacks. It seems the state of emergency has made Boko Haram even more violent.
There is an utterly pathetic quote in there by a UK military officer who recounts a Nigerian officer asking him whether the British government could sell Nigeria a machine which could automatically identify whether a car contains a terrorist.
“I was asked by a senior commander if we could sell them the machine that can tell if a car driving down the road contains a terrorist…I tried to tell them that such a machine doesn’t exist, but then they just thought we were hiding it from them”.